Tue, Sep 30, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Chechnya's acting leader thought poisoned

POLITICAL INTRIGUE Rebels are suspected of slipping an unknown poison into the food of the Russian republic's acting president days before crucial presidential elections

THE GUARDIAN , MOSCOW

The acting president of the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya was fighting for his life on Sunday after an elaborate attempt to poison him days before crucial presidential elections.

Anatoly Popov was taken seriously ill on Saturday after eating lunch in the Gudermes region of Chechnya, where he was at the opening ceremony of a new gas pipeline. He complained of stomach pains as his motorcade returned to the Chechen capital, Grozny, and was rushed to the main military base of Khankala, where he was operated on. His condition remained so severe that officials were considering sending him to Moscow, where a specialized clinic could provide better treatment. Officials said he was stable, but in a serious condition.

Popov's deputy, Alexander Andronov, said poison residue had been found in his body and that prosecutors had launched an investigation "to find out whether this was accidental food poisoning or if this was done deliberately."

"The diagnosis is poisoning by a substance of unknown origin," said the Chechen government's press service. A Ministry for Emergency Situations spokesman said someone may have slipped poison into his food in Gudermes.

A successful poisoning of a senior Russian official will humiliate Moscow, betraying either a fundamental breach of security or an inside job. Russian officials travel everywhere inside Chechnya with at least 10 heavily armed special forces bodyguards.

Senior officials eat in Chechnya in the safety of administration or military facilities. The fact that only Popov fell ill suggests that his food alone was targeted.

The attempt would appear to mark the Chechen rebels' first successful use of poison to attack a Russian official. Poisoning has, until now, been a favorite assassination tool of the Russian secret services in Chechnya.

Popov is a relatively low-profile official. An attack on him is more a symbolic gesture than a strategic victory. He was made prime minister of Chechnya last year by Moscow and attracted persistent criticism because of his seeming inexperience for the posting.

He was made acting president while his boss, the current administration head, Akhmad Kadyrov, went on the campaign trail. Kadyrov accompanied President Vladimir Putin to New York for a meeting at the UN.

Election "campaigning" as such has been marred by interference from Moscow that led to both of Kadyrov's main opponents dropping out of the race.

Kadyrov's police forces have reportedly beaten up anyone displaying a poster promoting the opposition in Grozny, where elections will take place next Sunday.

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